14 Nov 2016


Orthoptera, Jorge Ventocilla, Luna llena Biomuseo


Photo: Jorge Ventocilla


“In 1984, I was studying in Spain. My younger brother also went to Spain to study.

During one of those conversations between brothers, I asked him to mention some of the things he missed about Panama.

‘Bugs. There are no bugs here’. That was his answer”. 


By: Jorge Ventocilla


Honestly, I had never before chosen a tagline this long in my life. However, the importance of what was said in this conversation prevents me from editing it. Hereby we continue our talk about bugs, celebrating them at Biomuseo. This Full Moon article includes the answers and comments of 4 people. The question was: how is it possible to maintain the interest in Nature and bugs?

This time, the first to answer was an Anthropologist who is very involved with the Ngäbe and Buglé cultures. He is one of the founders of ACUN (Acción Cultural Ngäbe: Cultural Action for the Ngäbe People). His name is Blas Quintero and here are his answers:

“As you may know, I was born in Rincón Hondo, district of Pesé, in the Herrera province. I grew up there, among fields and rivers. Allow me to share with you some popular sayings related to bugs. When people say ‘bad bug’ (bicho malo), they mean the Devil; ‘Oh my God! The bad bug itself was after him!’ would mean that this person was being haunted by an evil spirit or a demon. A bad person, like a swindler or a rogue, may be called a ‘bad bug’ as well.  

Sometimes people say ‘beware of bugs’, when they are talking about snakes; without pronouncing the actual word. Some people believe that snakes would certainly appear if the word is spoken.

The following is a suggested translation for a popular song that I heard in Rincón Hondo:


"Love is a tiny little bug

That enters your body through the eyes

This bug, when it reaches your heart

Just leaves you tired and breathless."


Your question is “what did I do to keep the interest in bugs and not be afraid of them?” Well, I guess it was because I had the chance of learning a lot about them. For example, when walking through the forest, if you see a cachito tree (Acacia collinsii Saff), you know right away that you have to avoid any contact with the branches because their mature thorns may be full of biting ants. Moreover, these ants have a particular scent. When you venture into the forest, adults would tell you, all the time: “Be careful. Watch your step, pay attention to everything you touch or grab. Be very careful of handling mounds of dry leaves with your bare hands, use a stick instead.”

It seems that knowledge has a lot to do with respecting and dealing with bugs.

JV. Let’s talk about the little ones: as a child, what did you learn about ants?

BQ. Biting ants do really sting, especially during the rainy season, in October, for example. They look for dry places. That is why they come into our houses and build their nests near the walls. We can use a mixture of water and soap to make them go away, force them to find another place outdoors. Because everything is wet, they climb up the grass and dwell on top of it. Once you know that they do this, you try to avoid these areas. If you do come close to these colonies, ants will surely bite you.

For this reason, on the countryside, leftovers are disposed of at some distance from the houses. If this is not done, these ants will rapidly come and settle in the house.

“Cha-cha” (bullet) ants usually nest on dry wood, on the soil. They can be few, just six or seven, but that is enough to feel a sting like the one from a scorpion. They are bright, black, long and skinny. When harvest time comes for cassava or yam, it is not a good idea to use just our hands for removing the dry leaves, it is advisable to use a stick or a machete. Beware of “cha-chas”…

There are other types of ants, large, bright black, slow, with big jaws. They bite but they don’t sting. They also live on dry wood. Army ants can be found in groups or raids made up of thousands of individuals. You can actually hear them when they move from one place to the other, and you will also see crickets and other insects jumping, and flying, trying to stay away from these ants. These ants hold onto each other’s legs to form bridges with the purpose of crossing gaps or, for example, creeks. They carry their eggs on those journeys. If you see an army like this aiming to your house, sweep them away and make them change their path. If you don’t do this, you could end up with a serious problem at home. They will focus on their objective, which is to cut and transport leaves, biting anyone or anything on their path. 

Many trees also have their own ants.  

Well, the thing about ants is that knowing about where they live, on which trees, which mounds, is very important. You learn to just leave them alone. Don’t kick over the ant hill!

This is why I insist that lack of knowledge leads to fear. Many people think these bugs are bad and useless. However, this is not true. They do bite and sting, but only when you invade their territories, when you “bug” them. If we learn about where and how they live, they would not have to bite. Biting is just their way of saying “hey, respect my home!” I think we should talk more about this topic in the future.

JV. Any thoughts about our role in this subject, as parents and adults?

BQ. Last month I taught my niece, she is 4 years old, some things about butterflies and why she should not be afraid of them. In Macaracas, at my grandma’s backyard, there are a lot of Peregrina flowers. Butterflies love this plant. I would catch butterflies by cupping my hands and then handling them over to her so she could release them and watch them fly. She would laugh, and so would I. She told that story to her parents. Now the mother says that she keeps playing and running, as if flying like a butterfly.

Jorge Ventocilla, Luna llena Biomuseo

Blas Quintero and his niece Lucía in Macaracas, learning about bugs.

Photo: Tania Sterling


In 1984, I was studying in Spain. My younger brother also went to Spain to study. During one of those conversations between brothers, I asked him to mention some of the things he missed about Panama. “Bugs. There are no bugs here.” That was his answer.

My mother taught me how to fall asleep to a chorus of crickets. Back then, there was no electricity in Rincón Hondo and we used oil lamps; therefore, when light was out, it was really out. You were able to see the same either with your eyes opened or closed. Then the chirping began. We were already in bed and crickets were about to begin their nightly concert: “chirp chirp”…. “sooooeeey, sooooeeey…”,  “kssh kssh…”. Do you hear that? Do you hear that one “keeeeleee, keeeeleee”? Nature’s own lullaby.


After the President, some TV commentators, certain athletes and some older members of the politic class in Panama, the most renowned person here may be Olo. “Ologwagdi, at your service,” as he says. 

Ologwagdi is from the Kuna (Guna) people, a painter and an illustrator. He works at Panama’s Department of Education, a dear friend and activist of important causes, like good food and sticking together with people that matter. He grew up in Colón and in Akuanusadub, Kuna (Guna) Yala. Olo is 63 years old and his contributions keep growing. One of his current assignments is to paint a definite version of the National Coat of Arms, as part of the Commission of the National Symbols of Panama. “As an artist, and as a patriot, we do what we have to do”, he would say. He paints with the soul and with a wide smile…always. 

Plumilla de Ologwagdi, pescadito de plata

Ilustration by Ologwagdi: The Silverfish


“My best work of art is my life,”  “I fight the fight painting”… are some phrases that Olo has said, and that I always keep in mind.  

Ologwagdi told me the following:

“There in Akuanusadub, our living quarters consisted of 2 houses. We lived in the larger house. In the smaller one, we had a pair of rabbits, an agouti (ñeque), and 2 or 3 guinea pigs.  We had glowworms make us company at night on our hammocks. Grandpa used to bring them from the sugar cane fields, they would follow him to feed on the cane. He usually assigned one glowworm per hammock. Our grandfather, Bab Guillermo, built a house for us on the almond tree. We had a usual visitor in this house, a beautiful, little iguana. On the eaves of the large house, which were made up of balsa wood, there were also 2 parakeets. There was a blue-headed parrot or casanga (dargi-dargi).  It was us, the kids, who were in charge of feeding those members of the family. We would feed them before going to school, at noon, and then for a last time later in the afternoon.      

Plumilla de Ologwagdi, mosca           

Illustration by Ologwagdi: The Popular Fly            


All these elements brought together by our grandparents made it possible for us, their grandkids, to have that essential and amazing interaction with other inhabitants of Mother Earth. Some of these inhabitants were adopted by them for us. By divine grace, I still paint iguanas, agoutis and other fellow Nature dwellers.

The highest authority of our Kuna (Guna) community, our Sagladummad [Sahila] Inageliginya, told us that one day our Founding Father, Ibelele, saw an ant on top of a log which was floating on the river. Our warrior stepped down, picked the ant up, placed it on dry soil and then spoke to it: "Little sister, that is not your element, you can get hurt. Come back to the earth.” 

There were sad moments too. We had a yellow bird (sauce golo) which sang beautifully, and it was a really sad day when it died. My father had built a large cage made from virulí (a type of reed plant) for that bird. Another time, we noticed our parakeet was dead… or so we thought. We learned something else that day when some of the adults placed the parakeet on the floor, covered it with a calabash bowl, tapped a few times on the bowl and, suddenly the parakeet came back to life!

In addition, I would like to mention that ours was the first wooden horse in Kuna (Guna) Yala. Our grandfather made it for us, based on a model he saw on a Popular Mechanics magazine”.

There are all kinds of people in this world. There are people who devote their lives to the study of bugs. I approached two entomologists (scientists who study insects; i.e. the most common bugs) with the same question. They were very busy, so I asked them for short, straight-to-the-point answers.

Dr. Héctor Barrios works for the Regional Master Degree Program in Entomology of Universidad de Panamá. “I have never had any kind of phobias concerning animals, arthropods included,” he told me. “Insects can be found in a large variety of colors and shapes. This is what drew me to them: their colors, in particular. They provide a spectacular sight at the beginning of their lives. Then, when you learn more about them, and when you see all their diversity, shapes, history, you don’t want to let go.” 

Dr. Dave Roubik, researcher for the Smithsonian Institute in Panama, gave me a powerful answer for the question asked on this Full Moon article: “Unless we live on a container made up of concrete (like a prison cell), we need to know about all living things. If we don’t know anything about them, we become more vulnerable and prone to frequent suffering.”


PS: It is a good idea to suggest that people 10 years or older pay attention to this month’s “supermoon”. We will not be able to see one as bright and big for other 68 years